Network upgrade: No man is an island

Following the successful upgrade to the Isle of Man's TETRA network, Sam Fenwick hears from Jane Quayle and Graham Florence about the project and its benefits

Following the successful upgrade to the Isle of Man’s TETRA network, Sam Fenwick hears from Jane Quayle and Graham Florence about the project and its benefits


L-R: Hon. Juan Watterson, BA Hons FCA MHK, Minister for Home Affairs; Greg King, director, solutions & services, Northern Europe at Motorola Solutions 

The Isle of Man’s TETRA network was originally installed back in 2003. After 11 years of continuous service and more than 16 million calls, it had reached the end of its operational life. However, what tolled the end for the network in its current form wasn’t its performance or the degradation of its physical infrastructure but the march of technology.

According to Jane Quayle, head of the communications division at the Department of Home Affairs, the decision
to upgrade the network was primarily driven by maintenance considerations. While it had reached the end of its working life, “at the time we had to make a decision on whether to replace it or not – the system was working absolutely fine, but the maintenance contract with Motorola Solutions [had come to the end] so there would be no guarantees in the future and of course you then can’t take the risk,” she explains.

“If you have no maintenance support if something does go wrong and while best endeavours would be done, if they couldn’t repair it, we would be left in a situation where we had no radio system. That’s where we came to, which is why we took the decision and started the [procurement process] in 2014 for the replacement, and of course we wanted to go to [the Gen3 IP platform]. We were still [using the Gen1 switch], so we wanted to go up into the new generation of the Motorola Solutions systems.”

The Isle’s TETRA network provides secure and reliable communications for its Constabulary, Fire and Rescue Service and Ambulance Service, and is an integral part of the Emergency Services Joint Control Room. The system is used by a number of other Government organisations and is essential to the safe running of high-profile events, including the island’s motorcycling festivals, such as the TT races and the Festival of Motorcycling.

It is worth noting that unlike the Airwave network used by the mainland’s emergency services, Quayle says that while end-users have to “pay a little bit” towards maintenance, use of the network is free.

The upgrade project was handled by Motorola Solutions, which became the preferred supplier after a full and fair tendering process. The project was delivered on time and on budget in September 2015, following approval by Tynwald in December 2014.

“Immediately after we were awarded the contract, we sat down and worked with the customer and started really good communications with them and had a very open relationship with them,” says Graham Florence, account director for Ireland, Scotland, Isle of Man, Jersey and Guernsey at Motorola Solutions.

Cost savings
According to Chris Thomas MHK, member of the Department of Home Affairs with responsibility for the communications division, the upgrade project “delivered savings approaching £1 million on the original budget”. I asked Quayle where the majority of these savings were found. She explains that the majority came from migrating the links between the sites from microwave bearer to the Isle of Man Government-owned Connect Mann system.

Graham adds that some of the original links “would occasionally be adversely affected by the weather”, and notes the harsh environment the Isle suffers from. He explains that the Connect Mann team had to adapt their switches as the communications that had been running over their network were not mission-critical, prior to the upgrade project. Graham says Motorola Solutions replaced some of the microwave links, built in “microwave with diversity” and “changed the frequencies to make sure that the impact of the weather conditions they’d seen in the past were eliminated, if not eliminated as best as possible”.

Other than financial savings, what other benefits have there been from the upgrade? “From the user’s point of view, we’re getting reports that the [sound] is clearer,” says Quayle. “We’re pleased with the sound now, the system certainly seems to be getting more compliments on its [clarity]. Although I thought it was pretty good before, we do have slightly better coverage. We’ve also moved some sites to give us more coverage. We have pretty much 99.5 per cent coverage on the Isle of Man.” She says the island’s topology is pretty challenging, but adds: “There are only really a couple of spots where we simply cannot get a signal. On the whole the coverage is superb for us.”

I asked Quayle what were the biggest challenges posed by the upgrade. “The challenges for us were the migration off one system to the other and also moving off the microwave network onto the Connect Mann system. While they were challenges, we overcame them fairly easy because we have good teams. Good teams and good communication are absolutely key to everything and we were very fortunate, both from the Isle of Man Government’s point of view – we have a good team in place here – but equally the Motorola Solutions team were fantastic and we worked very well together, so much so that we didn’t really have any problems, which is amazing.

“The switchover from one system to the other went very smoothly – a few grey hairs coming out, but very smoothly and, as I say, I really couldn’t fault the whole process.” She adds that she doesn’t believe the end-users noticed the changeover as any outage lasted mere seconds for each of the network’s 23 sites, and users were protected by overlapping coverage. It was necessary to switch from the old to the new TETRA system and from microwave bearer to Connect Mann at the same time. Graham explains that the installation team set up the new switch, configured the new and old systems so that they “were running in parallel”, then migrated each site from the legacy EBTS base stations to their new MTS replacements. Once this was done, the old switch was decommissioned and there was no need for the end-users “to reprogramme any terminals or do any additional training”.

“There were some challenges – there was very restricted access at some sites, which required some very creative installation techniques – but they were all achieved,” Graham says. He notes that the new MTS base stations have a smaller footprint than their predecessors, making them easier to install, and they have lower power and heating requirements, reducing operational expenditure. At the same time as the base stations were replaced, the Motorola Solutions team also replaced the antennas at each site and added a couple of extra base stations to improve coverage, and the improvements were verified with drive testing.

Quayle comments that the upgraded network’s first big test will be the next TT race, which takes place at the start of June this year and lasts for more than a fortnight. This is because the event normally has about 300 marshals, all of whom have radios.

“It certainly gets a hammering when all of a sudden we’ve got hundreds more people [on the network]. [The marshals] don’t use the radios perhaps like the emergency services would – less is more in terms of speech. The calls tend to be a bit longer,” Quayle says. She adds that while there are about 3,300 terminals in operation, they are not normally all in use at the same time.

The upgrade did create some headaches due to the timing of the migration of the UK’s PPDR organisations from Airwave to EE’s Emergency Services Network, which will provide mission-critical comms over LTE.

“We looked at this very carefully when we were coming round to ‘what are we doing now for the next 10 years?’, and ESN in the UK was just slightly too late for us, we couldn’t wait,” Quayle explains. “There was a school of thought at one point that maybe we ought to wait, but we couldn’t wait that long. We’re looking with very keen interest at what’s happening across the water. It’s a slightly different set-up over here because we don’t have the big telecoms operators, but certainly it’s the way to go in the future. The next time we’re looking to go forward with an upgrade or replacement, the technology will have been very much in place by then, in 10 years’ time. It’s really difficult to say we’ll do this [or that] next because we really don’t know what else will be available.”

She adds that the Isle of Man Government has future-proofed its network “to a degree”, as the upgraded network is LTE-ready. Graham says all sites except two new outdoor sites have space for LTE eNodeBs to be installed at a later date, and the Gen3 platform can support the connection to a private or public LTE network. “Physically it doesn’t have all the bits in today, but it is capable of doing that,” he adds.

Graham adds that the client has licences to run TEDS over five of the upgraded TETRA network’s base stations but Quayle says that using this capability is “not on the radar at the moment”.

It is only fitting that Quayle has the last word. “I put the success of this implementation down to teamwork and communication – and a good product. Let’s face it, TETRA is still a very good product – what we need on the Isle of Man,” she concludes.